Have you ever wasted a whole day because your boss had you working on the wrong question?

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I’m about to leave the house in the morning and, as I grab my keys and coffee, I ask my teenage son to please clean up the kitchen when he comes home from school.  I arrive home nine hours later, ready to swing into action to make dinner, and I find a greasy stovetop and kitchen counters sticky with maple syrup, strewn with crumbs, and covered with dirty dishes. My son is out with friends, and now I must spend fifteen minutes cleaning up before I can make dinner.  I am not happy.

We have “the conversation” when he arrives home.  

“Hey, didn’t I ask you to clean up the kitchen when you got home?”

“Yeah, and I did!”

“Dirty counters and dishes all over the place do not equal a clean kitchen.”

“I thought we just had to empty the dishwasher…and I put the dishes from the sink into the dishwasher too!”

“Okay, but that’s not what I mean when I say, ‘clean the kitchen.’  Clean means the counters and table are wiped off with hot soapy water, all dirty dishes are in the dishwasher or hand-washed, the stove is clean, and food is put away. I had to spend my valuable time cleaning up before I could start dinner.”

While this looks like a case of an absent-minded teenager, I realized from our exchange that I had not made a clear request of my son.  I didn’t explain the scope of what I wanted done, and the standards I wanted him to meet. I also had not given him a timeframe within which I wanted the kitchen clean. Because I made a sloppy request, and he had moved on to his next commitment, I had to clean up the mess.   

Unclear requests are time thieves

Squishy requests contribute to low productivity. They steal our time, cause double-work to be done, and can generate frustration and resentment.  I was talking about the topic of this article with my husband, and immediately, he remembered a time when an ambiguous request robbed him of a whole day of his life. He was working on a strategic planning team in a large bureaucracy, and his group often served as the go to when senior leaders had questions. It was a Friday. A tasking came in from the Director’s office. They wanted some data related to hiring, retention, and attrition.  To get the answer to the question, my husband could pull some data from centralized HR databases, but to address other aspects of the query, he would have to reach out to multiple offices, task them for subsets of the data, and then compile their responses. He reached out to his counterparts across the organization, explained the request, and set to work on it. He finally had all of the inputs by about 4pm. He compiled the results, coordinated the final report with his counterparts, and sent the response up to the Director.  A few minutes later, the Director’s office called him and said “What is this? This isn’t what we asked for.”

After he processed the ensuing emotional wave of disbelief, upset, and some embarrassment, my husband realized his team had failed to ask some critical questions of the Director’s office when the tasking came in:  

  • Why do you want this data?
  • What is the question you are trying to answer?  
  • How will this data be used to inform your decision-making?

He assumed the Director’s office knew what they wanted when they asked the strategy team for specific data.  It turns out the Director was asking a different question, and he needed different data to understand it – but he didn’t know that.

Squishy Requests Come at a Cost

Not only had my husband invested an entire day on the tasking, he had asked several other people to shift their focus to this request and unintentionally stolen time from them too. How often do we stop to add up the value of lost productivity resulting from a poorly framed request? The financial costs are obvious, but there are other unseen consequences. When this kind of thing happens to us, our first reaction may be to blame the party who made the request.

We may question our leaders: “Do they even know what they are doing up there?” If we draw others into this narrative, organizational trust takes a hit, and negative emotions are amplified.

Unclear requests create real costs.  They
• waste time
• produce negative emotions
• erode trust.
With attention and practice, we can clean them up.

Cleaning Up Our Requests

The good news is that we can reclaim productivity if we become more mindful about how we make requests and how we respond to requests others make of us.

There is a significant body of knowledge on how to make a clear request, and Fernando Flores may be best known among several philosophers for the way he defined specific speech acts that transform conversations into tools for building trust and moving to action.  Flores was a former Chilean Minister of Finance who was arrested and tortured under the Pinochet regime; using his time in prison to read philosophy, he came to understand the causes of Chile’s political upheaval to be due in part to leaders’ failures to make clear requests and agreements with each other.  In his subsequent writing, teaching, and consulting work, he helped people learn how to be intentional and clear when making requests, offers, and commitments to and with each other.

Making a Clear Request

Flores defined the elements of a clear request, from the perspective of the requester.  Let’s take a look, using the simplistic “clean the kitchen” example:

  • What do I want the person to do?
    • Clean the kitchen up so I can make dinner in a clean environment when I get home from work.
  • Does the person I am asking this of have the authority, capability, competence, and resources to do what I am asking?
    • Does my son know how to do this?  Does he have the time? Can he do it independently, or does he need help?
  • Why am I asking?   What is this request in service of? What is the context?
    • It’s important to keep a clean, hygienic kitchen for food preparation. It also enables me to prepare dinner at a reasonable time that fits everyone’s schedule.  This task also teaches my son personal responsibility and allows him to contribute to our family “team.”
  • How will I know it’s been done well? What are my “conditions of satisfaction?”
    • All food put away; counters, table, stovetop washed with hot soapy water; dishwasher emptied of clean dishes and dishes put away; dirty dishes loaded in dishwasher; hand wash items hand-washed, rinsed, put on drainboard.  Everything done no later than 5pm.

Some considerations that factor into our conditions of satisfaction might be:

  • What should the end product look / sound / feel / smell / taste like?
  • What degree of precision or accuracy do I need?
  • What materials should be used?
  • How thorough/comprehensive must the effort be?
  • Who should be consulted for additional inputs?
  • What process should be followed?  What leeway exists in how it’s done?
  • What can be left out?
  • When must it be completed?

Go Ahead, Ask!

If this article resonates,  

Start experimenting with how you make requests, using Flores’ guidelines, and notice what happens.  

  • What is it like to frame a clear request and communicate it clearly?  
  • What kind of response do you get from others when you make a clear request?
  • When they have committed to fulfill your request, what kind of end product are you seeing?  
  • How does your relationship with the person on the receiving end of your request change?
  • How does making clear requests impact your productivity?

Flip it around: Notice how other people frame their requests to you.

  • To what extent do they incorporate all of the elements of a clear request?
  • If something is missing or ambiguous, what can you ask to help clarify the request?
  • What do you need to understand to be able to say “Yes, I can do that”?
  • How does clarifying the request impact your ability to budget your time?

As a leadership coach, I help my clients create greater awareness about what’s important to them and take action to achieve their goals.  Most of my clients want to be productive, engaged, fulfilled, and impactful in their lives and work. Being able to make and respond to clear requests gives us more time for what matters most.

Writer Annie Dillard distills it beautifully —  “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Valerie Lingeman coaches leaders, teams, and groups who are committed to growth, learning, and positive change.  She believes that producing impact and being happy at work are not mutually exclusive, and she helps her clients reach for both.   

Contact Valerie at valerie@doublehelixlearning.com | 202.276.6116.

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